In 2003, the renegade chef decided he would not stand for the overprocessed foods served in British grade school cafeterias. So, he launched a one-man crusade to bring real food back to the cafeteria line. After four relentless years, the British government answered Jamie's call—spending nearly $1 billion to serve fresh, healthy foods to millions of school lunch tables.
Now, Jamie is taking his mission stateside. Plate by plate, this determined father of three (with a fourth on the way!) wants to freshen up American meals. A new primetime show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, chronicles Jamie's radical three-month plan to transform eating habits in Huntington, West Virginia—recently ranked one of America's most obese cities by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "I'm here to start a revolution," he says. "The biggest food revolution that this country's ever seen."
With statistics showing that this generation of children may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents, Jamie says change must happen now. "I'm here to show America just a little effort can make a massive difference," he says.
Thanks to first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move Initiative, Jamie says change is already under way—he just wants to lend a hand. "I want to inspire the parents of America to have an opinion for themselves and support me as one to support the first lady," he says.
He also wants to ease the minds of parents whose children consume school cafeteria food. "I think now it's really hard for moms to go out and work and worry about their kids and what they [eat]," he says. "I know that moms and dads of America would be relieved quite a lot to know that half of their nutrition from that beautiful age needs to be safe, and that's my inspiration."
Executive producer Ryan Seacrest is helping Jamie bring his movement to America. Ryan says he first realized how passionate parents were about their children's nutrition on his morning radio show. When he discussed Jamie's movement in England, he says all 25 phone lines lit up. "Moms were really passionate about asking questions," he says. "So the dialogue, the conversation began. [I] met with Jamie and instantly knew that this was something that I wanted to be a part of."
The issue also hits home for Ryan, who admits he was overweight as a child. "I became very aware and self-conscious of my physique," he says. "I didn't like spring because spring break was imminent, and I didn't want to go to the pool. I would swim with my T-shirt. And when you have that feeling as a kid, that lives with you for a long time."
When Jamie first arrived in Huntington, what he found was shocking. Schools served pizza for breakfast, and children often had processed chicken nuggets for lunch. He also found that the United States Department of Agriculture's guidelines considered French fries a vegetable in school cafeterias. "The standards in this country are not protecting your kids," he says. "And I want mothers and fathers to be as angry as I am."
While at the school, Jamie took over the kitchen—which did not please many of the cooks. "Humans are animals of habit; we don't like change," he says. "People don't want to change until the pain of staying the way they are gets worse."
Still, Jamie says he doesn't mind resistance. "I've worked in high schools where I get called so many things," he says. "But when you know you're getting up to do something right, it empowers you to steam through it and make change."
One of the most unfriendly faces Jamie encountered in Huntington was Rod Willis, a local DJ set on running Jamie out of town. "The CDC report obviously came out, told us that we were the unhealthiest city in the entire nation, so we were starting to take steps on our own," Rod says. "We kind of felt that when Jamie came to town, he was just here to exploit that fact and put a few bucks in his pocket."
Jamie set out to make Rod understand his true intentions—that healthy eating is a matter of life and death. To prove his point, Jamie took Rod to a local funeral home to show him a fast-growing line of caskets. According to the largest casket manufacturer in the country, sales have more than tripled in the past 10 years.
Funeral home owner David says he regularly has emotional conversations with grieving families about the burial process. "More and more a part of our job [is] to prepare a family to understand that their loved one is so large that you're not going to be able to have a traditional viewing," he says. "[The casket] has to be transported in the back of a cargo van. It will not fit in a hearse. ... The cemetery's going to require you to have two grave spaces."
David says cremation is often not an option. Some facilitates are not able to accommodate the size of the body. If it does, David says the body often consumes itself. "It's basically a massive great human candle,” Jamie says. “It's hard for you to have dignity."
Now, this DJ has changed his tune—he's even cooking healthy at home. "I went out and got myself a Crock-Pot for the very first time," he says. "All it takes is just putting in some healthy ingredients."
While in Huntington, Jamie didn't just visit school cafeterias, radio stations and funeral homes. He also made house calls.
During his stay, he dropped in on Stacie, a mother of four, who had a freezer full of 50-cent frozen pizzas—but no veggies in sight. Like so many busy parents, Stacie was buying the most cost-effective, easy-to-prepare food she could find without realizing the bigger consequences.
To put things in perspective, Jamie placed all the food her family typically eats in a week on the table. "Notice it's all the same colors—all golden brown," he says. "This stuff goes through you and your family's body every week. And I need you to know that this is going to kill your children early. We're talking about 10, 13, 14 years off their lives."
Stacie says she had a huge wake-up call. "Seeing that food scares me to think that I'm opening my kids to a world of failure," she says. "I want them to be good. I want them to learn from me."
Still, Jamie says it's not his intention to make Stacie—or any parent—feel guilty. "That's what I'm all about—[I'm about providing] the tools to let every mother and father make good decisions," he says. "It's about you owning the things that you love."
At the end of his visit, Jamie, Stacie and her family buried the deep fryer in the backyard—literally! Since then, the family has been eating healthy and has even lost weight. "[Stacie's son] Justin—who was 12 years old when I met him—has lost 20, 30 pounds, which is great. But you've got to remember I'm not doing a diet show," he says. "This is about real food. This is about health. ... There are just as many unhealthy skinny people. We can't just label it as obesity."
Jamie says you can stage your own kitchen revolution by following a few dos and don'ts:
Don't give up everything you love. If your family can't live without pizza, find a recipe to make it with fresh, natural ingredients. "This is about moms and dads owning what their kids are consuming," he says. "You still can't have it every day, but it's about knowing what's in the food that your little babies are eating."
Do dress up dinner with fruits and vegetables. "You need different textures. Different colors."
Do read labels. "If you don't recognize something on the back of an ingredients pack—if it sounds like a NASA science lesson—don't buy it," he says. "If America does that, then the food industry that supports it will reformulate and give you the same stuff that you love without the rubbish."
Don't fall for supermarket sales. "[Those deals are] so weighted on the highly processed cheap foods," he says. "It's buy one, get one free—do you need it in the first place? [Ask yourself]: 'Is it local? Is it seasonal? Can you buy loose instead of in the bags?' It's much cheaper.
Do cook with olive oil. This can be a great substitute for butter. "Buy yourself a cheap olive oil for sort of basic cooking, and then get something about 10 bucks for finishing things."
Jamie says change is going to come—and it starts with all of us. "One of the things that's beautiful about our generation right now is that we've had four generations of adults that have made the wrong decisions, and I think now is time for change."